Unpacking CRT—What It Is and What It Isn’t

J. Duncan Moore, Jr


Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short, is a framework for understanding racial conflict and power relationships in the United States and other places. The concepts behind CRT were developed in the 1980s and 1990s by scholars at major universities and law schools, but the term only entered common parlance in the last several years, accelerating in use in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. Today, CRT is highly controversial and has become a politically-charged term. Governors and legislators in several states have proposed or passed legislation/executive orders to forbid its use and limit what can be taught about racism in the public schools or governmental institutions. Let's take a plain language look at CRT so we can really understand the current controversy surrounding this term and concept.

The essential notion behind CRT is that racism is embedded throughout American society and assumes a variety of forms, many of them not readily visible to us. It posits that many Americans are so used to living in a racialized society that they may not notice the many ways that racism determines and circumscribes their existence. Racism, in other words, is not only a matter of individual prejudice or bias against Blacks and other minorities but a matter of inherited structural disadvantages that run throughout American society. These disadvantages play out in the realms of housing, education, healthcare, employment, environment, and income for minorities, to name some of the major areas. They also have a psychological dimension, for both Blacks and whites.

Thus, according to CRT, racism is not an aberration but a fundamental and normalized aspect of U.S. society. And race itself is not a biological concept but a social construct that advances the interests of white people at the expense of people of color.

African-Americans and other non-white groups are aware of how these strictures affect their lives, however, on their own they lack the power to change the institutions and legal structures that perpetuate this racialized environment. Most white people, on the other hand, are unaware of these structures or may be comfortable with the way things are, because they benefit from the advantages that this racialized environment confers on them. They generally resist changing the status quo.

CRT has developed a vocabulary that has entered widespread usage in recent years. Some CRT-related terms that are frequently used include white supremacy, intersectionality, internalized racial oppression, whiteness, white privilege, structural racism, institutional racism, and storytelling.

To those predisposed to argue against these traditional racial imbalances, the theory holds a great deal of explanatory power. It explains, for example, how the everyday lived experiences of people of color can be so different from those of the white majority. It explains how the legal system treats people differently depending on their identity and racial group. CRT also provides a framework for trying to change those power relationships so that people of color are less disadvantaged vis-à-vis the white population.

To those comfortable with existing power relationships in society, CRT is viewed as a threat and a provocation. Opponents claim that it drives people apart and that it emphasizes divisions in U.S. society. Even some black intellectuals, such as John McWhorter, have raised serious reservations about the usefulness of the CRT framework. Its critics argue that the vocabulary of CRT, emphasizing classes of oppression and victimhood, reduces people to group stereotypes and fails to allow for individual agency.

The ideas behind critical race theory were developed in the 1980s by Derrick Bell, the first Black professor to gain tenure at Harvard Law School, and Kimberle Crenshaw, a student of Bell's and later a law professor at UCLA who actually coined the term. They draw on the intellectual legacy of many earlier thinkers, notably W.E.B. DuBois. The founding theorists of CRT argued that conventional liberal responses to racism—e.g., that if we keep going on the established path of the mainstream civil-rights project, we will eventually arrive at racial justice – were insufficient and misguided. Fighting bias and discrimination, as conventionally understood, fails to address the underlying structures of racism that are codified in law and custom. Standard liberal remedies, such as affirmative action, colorblindness, merit principles, and role modeling, will not achieve the desired goal by themselves. Further, the American legal system is not value-neutral, but is organized to oppress or restrain people of color.

Much of the recent uproar about CRT concerns anti-racism training in workplaces and schools. In the aftermath of the societal convulsion over the killing of George Floyd, many employers instituted mandatory workplace anti-racism training programs. These were not always well received. Also, some white parents have been disturbed by reports that their children are being made to feel guilty by the anti-racism trainers and teachers. School boards have come under attack across the country for permitting these kinds of trainings, and legislators have threatened to ban critical race theory from the public schools.

While educators say that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools and is only taught in advanced college courses or graduate-level institutions, it is nonetheless true that the concepts in CRT inform much of the anti-racism training and coursework that is being offered in workplaces and educational institutions.

Thus, whether people agree with it or not, CRT has contributed to the overall public reawakening to the persistence of racial inequities and the maldistribution of opportunities and resources in the United States.


For more information:
An article about Derrick Bell: �https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/20/the-man-behind-critical-race-theory (Subscription may be required.)